First-Time Finisher: Hitting the Marathon-Training Wall

With one month to go until race day, Annie says, "This will take a miracle." Can she get over the hump?

The proverbial brick wall

Last week, my editor pointed out, marked my tenth “First-Time Finisher” column. “Just one month ’til the marathon!” she said. As if any second now, I’d find myself across the finish line, triumphant.

A headline flashed across my eyes: “I have another month left of training.”

I looked at the calendar I keep my training plan on. So. Many. Miles. To go. I’ve hit my Red Sea: There’s no going back. This will take a miracle.

Last week was troubling. For three straight days, there was just no time to run. I told myself that a few days off would do me some good. The rest would reenergize me, and I’d jump into this week with the go-getter mentality I had 10 weeks ago.

Nope. Still exhausted. I am struggling with runner’s block, a motivational wall. I’m running, but I’m undoubtedly half-assing it: My attention to mileage, times, terrain and cross-training is nil. I sat down at my computer clueless as to what to write about. At the rate I’m going, November is going to be a long month.

I don’t know if other runners have had this sort of trouble at the one-month mark, wherein they wake up suddenly resentful of all the time and energy running is sucking out of their lives. But for me, the marathon can’t get here fast enough. Let the start gun go off and put me out of my misery.

I did a little research online. Ted Spiker, a writer for Runner’s World, wrote an article about motivation, detailing how the first two marathons he signed up for just…well…didn’t happen. He signed up with a vision of arriving at the starting line with the body of Adonis and the speed of Hermes. That went about as well as you might guess.

Then, he signed up for another one. But this time, he dropped the lofty plans and picked up a WordPress account. He would make it to the finish line this time, not for leg tone, but because he wanted to. And he would make sure it happened by inviting others along for the ride:

“According to [a psychology expert], our dedication to running won’t last if it’s fueled primarily by outside or superficial influences, or what researchers call extrinsic motivation. On the flip side, if you run because it’s fun or stimulating in some way—like I get a kick out of the reader responses to my blog—you’re much more likely to stick with it. Experts call that intrinsic motivation.”

Phil Clark said as much in his Be Well interview a few weeks ago. Essentially, running should be awesome enough in and of itself to keep you from even having to worry about motivation.

I don’t know that I’ll ever have that kind of steady, running-is-my-oxygen mentality. On some level, my runs will always be (at least partially) a way to fend off morbid obesity. I realize this does not make me Olympic material.

A memory lane jaunt: Years ago, my dad took up golf. He started playing with goals in mind: be able to hit the course with buddies and not embarrass himself, and have a braggable handicap. Extrinsic motivation. After time, though, with enough practice, he started to really just love swinging the club. The routine and sense of productivity was soothing. He’d go over to the driving range (I went along once or twice, though, at age 12, the game never really spoke to me) and spend an hour churning through a bucket of Titleists.

Perhaps some of my reasons for signing up for the marathon were extrinsic. I could write a sassy blog series, chat with friends about it, get a new T-shirt, and, forever after, be able to say I’d done it.

But last night, I came home after a long day at my desk. Cranky, belligerent, I went upstairs and sat on my bed. Overwhelming inertia. Movement: impossible.

Then, like it happened without me knowing about it, I was running along the Schuylkill. A long, fast run was the only way for the day to end. I didn’t look at my watch, and don’t know how far I went. I wasn’t running for a marathon, or for a blog, or to keep a girlish figure. I just wanted to run.

This does not happen every day. But it did remind of me of something that I’ve known all along. A marathon is a great goal, but it is just that—a goal. One day, one landmark, one run. It will make me proud to have done it, but no race will ever be my reason for running.

I’ll survive the next month not because I’m so commited to my performance at the Philadelphia Marathon, but because I love the feeling of hitting the trail every day. It energizes me, and at least temporarily detaches me from all the other day-to-day demands. That may be miracle enough to make it to November 20th.

Besides, I can’t check out completely. I have a blog series to write.


Research editor Annie Monjar blogs about training for the Philadelphia Marathon each week here on Be Well Philly. Want to catch up on the series? Here are her earlier posts, starting from the beginning:

• Taking the Marathon Dive
• Running a Marathon is @#^%*! Expensive
• The Great iPod Debate
• Knowing When to Take a Day Off
• A Good Trail Is Hard to Find
• Is Yoga Worth It for Runners?
• Group Runs Are for Angry Birds
• Does a Runner’s Diet Matter?
• The Morning Run Conundrum
Why You Should Care About Pro Runners, Not the Eagles